Tight on resources? Deputize your brand’s fans

Sometimes you just need more people. In January, Washington, D.C. deputized out-of-town security and police forces during the Obama inauguration. The city gave them the tools and authority to manage the massive crowds that had descended for the weekend. The size of the actual D.C. police force didn’t grow permanently, but it had the resources it needed to get through the event. Brands can achieve the same effect – a simulated growth in the size of its marketing resources – by deputizing their fans.

penzeysI am a huge fan of Penzey’s Spices. The company is based in Wisconsin and has a few dozen stores throughout the US and a mail-order catalog. Their products are amazing. Their cinnamon (all four varieties) is the best I’ve ever tasted. Penzey’s rubs and spice blends for meats and vegetables can make a good cook out of just about anyone. They offer adorable spice gift packages that I’ve often given at wedding showers and as holiday gifts. A few of my favorite recipes were discovered in their spice catalogs. I don’t ever plan on buying grocery-store spices again.

I will gladly sing Penzey’s praises to anyone who will listen (see above paragraph). But here’s the problem – I have very little at my disposal to aid in my Penzey’s evangelization. It doesn’t appear that the company has even dipped its toes into the social media waters yet. No Facebook fan page, no Twitter account, no company blog. That leaves me with only their Web site to direct people to after I tell them how absolutely delicious the Florida Seasoned Pepper or Northwoods Fire blend is.

But Penzey’s Web site is relatively bland – it’s set up essentially as a no-frills eCommerce site. There’s no way for me to interact with the brand and share it with my friends. Bill Penzey, the company founder, writes a folksy customer letter in each catalog and it’s posted on the penzeys.com Web site. But I can’t share it via Facebook, Delicious or Twitter. The catalog is essentially on the site in .pdf format – making it difficult to share. The recipes from the catalog are also posted to the Web site. But again, I can’t bookmark them, post them to a profile, or even “e-mail this page to a friend.”

What Penzey’s perhaps doesn’t realize is that I, and I’m sure many of their other fans, would do a heck of a lot of free marketing for them if we only had tools and content at our disposal. People are already talking about the brand online: a Google blog search for Penzey’s returns more than 14,000 results. On Facebook, a loyal Penzey’s fan created a group that has almost 400 members and there are three others with a couple dozen members. It doesn’t appear that anyone from Penzey’s participates in these groups.

If Penzey’s fans were deputized – armed and equipped with social tools to take to our friends and networks – we could spread our love for Penzey’s at an exponential rate. Imagine if Penzey’s had a Facebook fan page that featured recipes, images, coupons, gift ideas or cooking tips. Or if they created a YouTube channel or Flickr account where their fans could post photos or videos of the meals they created using Penzey’s spices. Penzey’s doesn’t necessarily need to dive in to a full-fledged social media campaign, but creating some social outposts could go a long way toward allowing their fans to interact with the brand (and with each other) and easily share Penzey’s information with their social networks.

Many smaller businesses are afraid of moving into social media because they think it will take too much time. But if your customers like your brand enough and you give them the necessary tools, they will spend their own time to tout your brand among their friends. So give ‘em a badge.

Image via Flickr user amymengel (yeah, I took that one)

Is Facebook the new AOL?

exitWhen I was in middle school, EVERY family I knew that was on the Internet was on AOL. It seemed like the only way you could get online. Everyone had AOL e-mail addresses, AOL Instant Messenger handles, and those somewhat stalker-enabled AOL Profiles. There were some alternatives, like CompuServe, but essentially you were on it because everyone else was.

Fast Forward 10 or 15 years and enter Facebook. Lots of people are joining the site because, well, everyone else is on the site. People in my parents’ generation have started to join because they’re being left out of information and conversations that happen on the site. Grandparents are joining Facebook because that’s where pictures of their grandkids get posted. My husband calls his parents in Pennsylvania to fill them in on the health of a neighbor who recently suffered a stroke. My in-laws live 500 yards from this man, but since my husband has friended his daughter on Facebook, he knows much more about how the neighbor is recovering than my in-laws do – despite that fact that we live 250 miles away. If you’re not on Facebook, you’re missing out.

But Facebook made changes earlier this month to its home page and the way information is presented. It now emphasizes friends’ status updates and photo posts and makes it hard to tell if they’ve joined a group, friended someone you know, became a fan of something, or installed an application. You have to visit their profile page for that. The process for things virally spreading through Facebook has been hampered, in my opinion. And according to TechCrunch, a new Facebook poll shows that 94 percent of Facebook users don’t like the changes, either.

In many industries, customers can “vote with their feet.” If they don’t like something, they leave. They take their business elsewhere. As alternatives to AOL began sprouting up, people began doing just that. They opted for a more open Internet, better connection service, less controlled content. But with Facebook, there doesn’t seem to be that option. How do you vote with your feet when there’s nowhere to go? MySpace is old hat and has its own set of issues that make it less user-friendly than Facebook. If all your friends are on Facebook and that’s where the action is, it doesn’t make much sense to leave in protest unless you can all go somewhere together. So as much as people are griping about the homepage changes, Facebook doesn’t have a ton of incentive to revert to the old site. Where are people going to go?

Facebook has shown willingness to listen to customers in the past – notably with its Beacon advertising platform and its recent changes to its Terms of Service. And several users weren’t fans of the 2008 design change, but Facebook stuck with it (those changes were more subtle). It has the luxury right now of being the biggest game in town. But judging by what became of AOL, that’s not a position that Facebook should get too comfortable in. Eventually, if Facebook users remain unhappy, expect a newer, cooler kid to roll in and start attracting attention – and users.

Image: Flickr user Scoobyfoo

Coming soon: Network Overload

Source: Flikr user NorthernLaLa

Do you remember how your mom would tell you every year on Halloween that too much candy at once would make you sick? That you should save some for later, space it out over a few days? But that you were so excited to have all that candy that you scarfed it all down, and then paid for it later?

While a good deal of social networking might be in its infancy, we have to assume that eventually, a lot of these tools and tactics will become mainstream– if you can’t claim that already. As the late majorities and laggards start to come around, it’ won’t be long before Facebook and Twitter are as ubiquitous as e-mail. Niche-specific social networks have begun popping up like Whack-a-Moles. Will all this lead to a social meltdown? Will we really be able to keep track of all of our friends, followers, feeds and networks? Will we NEED a separate network for every conceivable aspect of our lives? Will too much make us sick to our stomachs?

I’m currently a member of two Ning networks: PROpenMic and my industry-specific network. (I’m sure many of you know this, but Ning is a platform for building a Facebook-like social network for a specific group of people.) As Ning and similar platforms become more widespread and more people become comfortable with social networking, I can only imagine that the number of groups creating their own social network will rise dramatically. Remember how it used to be so hard to build a web site and so not may people/organizations had one?

I can envision a point where my university alumni association, church, town, dentist’s office, neighborhood, family and even my pets all have separate social networks. It’s already underway- my family is getting into Geni, my alumni association has integrated lots of social networking features into its Web site. Dave Fleet just noted that he’s seen an uptick in Ning networks and inspired the title for this post:

fleet

The more diffuse my involvement in social networking, the less engaged I am. I used to spend a lot of time on Facebook. Then I discovered Twitter. I’m a member of Geni, GoodReads, TripAdvisor– and about a dozen other sites. The more I join, the less I seem to interact. My interest in one network gives way to another. I’m not so sure that it’s a matter of having the time to participate as having the attention span. Even services like FriendFeed that consolidate my activity into one place make it only slightly easier to handle. And often I’m connecting and interacting with the same people across all these different networks.

So what does the future look like? As we join more social networks, will we actually socialize less? Will people join everything but participate in nothing? What good is a network if none of the members actively participate?

People have been postulating for a while now that “social networking fatigue” will force more interoperability between networks. Will one network, like Facebook, dominate and roll-up all other, smaller networks under its umbrella? I don’t think people will want to manage dozens of profiles and interactions at dozens of Web sites.

As we counsel clients and businesses on social media and introduce them to the possibilities, I think it’s important to emphasize that just because you CAN do something, doesn’t mean you SHOULD (see: shoulder pads, Furbies, and the Pontiac Aztek). Social networking strategies need to reflect a business goals and provide value to an organization’s stakeholders. Just because it’s easy to create a specific social network for your customers/employees/members doesn’t mean that it’s the best tool or method for engaging that audience. Look at what’s already out there and what tools the audience is already using. Are most of them active on Facebook? Maybe a fan page is a better alternative to a separate social network. Maybe all you need to do is jazz up your existing Web site with some interactive features that don’t require a login or profile.

In all our excitement about new tools and opportunities that social media presents, we have to remember that eating all the candy at once is going to make everyone sick. Mom was right – you’ve got to pace yourself!

Image via Flickr user NorthernLaLa